IF ANDREW ATHERTON wins the men's individual all-round gymnastics gold medal at the Commonwealth Games next week - and he has every chance of doing so - something will be missing. Or rather, someone.
Until last month Atherton, from Wigan, was going to Kuala Lumpur with his identical twin brother, Kevin, and was looking forward with filial devotion and rivalry to competing with and against him. Then one disastrous vault ended that ambition.
Kevin was competing in Denmark last month when his knee disintegrated beneath him. With one bad landing his hopes of being at the Commonwealth Games had disappeared.
"I think I was more upset than he was," Andrew said. "I rushed over to him, waited until an ambulance came and it was only when he had gone I realised I had to make a vault myself. Fortunately the coach pulled me out of that apparatus because I was so distressed.
"It wasn't so much that Kev was injured but that he was not going to be going to the Commonwealth Games. I'd really wanted to share the experience with him. We were looking forward to Kuala Lumpur and in one second it's all over."
For Andrew Atherton, 23, and the older brother by three minutes, the forced separation will be no minor dislocation. The twins began gymnastics together 16 years ago - "our parents were fed up with us jumping all over the furniture" - and got into the England Under-14 side at the same time.
So concerned were their parents that they might depend too much on each other, they were separated at school and put into different classes. "It seemed hard at the time, but it was good in the long run," Andrew said. "It prepared us for the time when we would be parted.
"Now he appears to be handling it very well; he's injured, he can't do anything about it. I'm the one going out there knowing he should be there with me."
Ironically it was Andrew who had tended to miss out hitherto. Kevin, he agrees, is the more natural gymnast and he has had to work that much harder to keep up. As a consequence it was Kevin who got to the World Championships first, and he was ahead until this season when Andrew has caught up and even overtaken his younger brother.
"It was difficult to be the one sitting at home but it's something you have to deal with, particularly in this sport where it's so easy to sustain an injury. You have to get used to one of us getting left behind."
Does jealousy play a part? "We're rivals, obviously, and I love competing against Kev," he replied, "but I've never taken the attitude: `Why is he going and I'm staying behind?' If he succeeds I'm very happy, I don't mind being beaten by my brother. As long as we keep it in the family."
Identical by feature but not by temperament - "I'm noisy but even-tempered and Kev's quiet, but if he blows a fuse, watch out" - the prospects for confusion are vast. In the World Championships two years ago the competition had to be stopped because the judges were astonished to see what appeared to be the same athlete competing twice with different numbers on.
"It was only when our coach explained we were twins and presented us together in front of the judges that the competition could go on," he said. "That was the first time international judges had come up against us. They're used to us now."
Atherton, whose best discipline is the rings, will not only be among the favourites for the individual all-round medals but will also be involved in England's push for the team gold, with Australia the principal threats.
The French have overtaken the former eastern bloc countries as the powerhouse of the sport but, now National Lottery money has started to flow, there are genuine hopes that Britain will finish among the top 12 in next year's world championships and, consequently, qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
That had been the limit of Andrew Atherton's ambitions but the injury to his brother has pushed back the date for when he was considering retirement. "I wasn't going to carry on to the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, but now Kevin has missed out I want to continue.
"I'd like to do a big Games with him and he'll definitely stop on. We were going to be the first twins to compete for England so hopefully we'll do it next time."
In Kuala Lumpur Andrew will be competing while, back in Wigan, Kevin will be commentating on the gymnastics for local television. Contact will be maintained via the phone
"Kevin decided not to go to the Games because his leg is still in plaster and it will be uncomfortable in the heat. But I'll be in touch because he'll want to know how my training is going on, how the routines are coming on, and so on.
"I know he's got confidence in me and that he'll be desperate for me to succeed for both of us. Me? I want to win the gold for my brother."Reuse content